Indigenous food crops refer to crops that have their origin in South Africa. Added to these crops are those that were introduced into the country and are now recognised as naturalised or traditional crops. These crops are produced and found growing in the country under various weather conditions with many found in the wild. They are divided into three categories; namely grains, vegetables and fruit.

Uses of indigenous food crops

  • Leaves, corms and shoots are eaten as boiled, dried, sometimes roasted vegetables. These are also used as relish and in soups.
  • Immature pods are dried or boiled while immature seeds are ground to make flour.
  • Tubers are used as food substitutes for starch-enriched food such as rice and maize meal.
  • Fruit types are eaten in ripened or dried form or nuts and can be processed into jam, jelly and juice

Advantages of growing indigenous crops

  • Low input requirements
  • Highly nutritious
  • Resistant to drought, pests and diseases
  • Better adapted to marginal areas than exotic crop
Source: Most common indigenous food crops of South Africa brochure at (take the “Resource centre” option)

Indigenous grain crops

See also the “Other crops” and “Sorghum” pages.

Indigenous grain crops can be defined as any crop yielding starch and protein-enriched seeds suitable for food. These crops are further subdivided into cereals (e.g. millet) and pulses (e.g. Bambara groundnut).

Indigenous fruit crops

Indigenous fruit crops are fruit types that are found diversely in the wild in South Africa. They are the seed-associated structures of certain plants that are sweet and edible in the raw state. Examples of fruit are marula, wild apricot, wild plum, raisin bush, sour plum.

Indigenous vegetable crops

Indigenous vegetable crops are defined as crops from which the tender leaves, stems and petioles are harvested and used in the preparation of vegetables. These crops are subdivided into roots/tubers (e.g. cassava, amadumbe, marama bean, living potato) and leafy (e.g. cleome, cowpea, amaranth, blackjack, Jews mallow). Table 1 provides the common and scientific names of a number of African vegetables found in South Africa along with the parts of the plants that can be consumed. [NOTE: Usually pumpkin is commercially produced for its fruit but because many Africans eat both the leaves, young and ripe fruit it is listed here as an African Vegetable.]

Common Name Scientific Name Edible Parts
Bambara groundnut Vigna subterranea Dried nuts/seeds
Groundnuts/Peanuts Arachis hypogaea Nuts/seeds
Cowpea Vigna unguiculata Leaves and seeds
Mung Bean Vigna radiata Seeds
Pigeon Peas Cajanus cajan  Leaves and seeds
Taro/cocoyam Colocasia esculenta  Tubers and leaves
Cassava Manihot esculenta  Leaves and root
Marama bean Tylosema esculentum  Tubers and seeds
Livingstone potato Plectranthus esculentus  Tubers
Zulu round potato/Hausa potato Solenostemon rotundifolius Tubers
Sweet potato Ipomoea batatas Leaves and tubers
Pigweed/Amaranth Amaranthus hybridus Leaves
Cat’s whiskers / Spiderflower Cleome gynandra Leaves
Common labsquater Chenopodium album  Leaves
Ethiopian Mustard / Ethiopian kale Brassica juncea Brassica carinata Young leaves
Black jack Bidens pilosa  Leaves
Ethiopian/black nightshade Solanum nigrum Leaves
Jute/Jews Mallow Corchorus tridens Leaves
Pumpkin Cucurbita maxima Young leaves, young fruit, old fruit and flowers
Gem squash Cucurbita pepo Young leaves and ripe fruit

Table 1: Common African vegetables found in South Africa (Tim Hart, HSRC)

African vegetables and food security

The indigenous knowledge associated with African vegetables and their importance for the food security of many rural South Africans warrants further discussion. This is especially in light of food security activities emphasising food production and improved access to food in a country and region which is faced with two primary problems: water scarcity and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.


  1. Firstly, indigenous knowledge is eroding, because of its limited transfer between generations due to changing social systems, despite the significance of these plants to food security and livelihoods.
  2. Secondly, changes in population pressure on natural resources and a breakdown in the in-situ conservation strategies is starting to result in the deterioration of natural resources, including African vegetables and consequently the indigenous knowledge associated with them. This is despite the significant contribution to food security made by these plants and their associated knowledge, and the fact that existing exotic vegetable cultivars cannot make such a contribution in marginal areas as they need high inputs and optimal agroecological conditions.
  3. More attention needs to be paid to these plants and other indigenous food crops in order to increase their contribution to food security and the variety of ways in which this can be done from household consumption to commercialisation and value-adding. However, this process needs to be done with care and socio-cultural aspects need to be considered.
Source: Tim Hart, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Local business environment

The indigenous food crop sector is faced with a number of challenges which hinder productivity and profitability:

  • Shortage of seed and other propagating material. There is no formal seed supply system for many indigenous crops
  • Increased decline in consumption and production. There is a shift among younger generations towards less nutritious foodstuffs due to lifestyle changes and assumptions about desirable eating habits.
  • Lack of value-adding technologies. As a result indigenous crops are largely consumed unprocessed. The popular value addition is drying or processing into flour through pounding. Lack of processing technologies makes it difficult for the sector to cater for changing needs of consumers.
  • Marketing problems. Both local and export markets are flooded by exotic crops making it difficult for the introduction of indigenous crops. As a result, indigenous crops remain largely crops of the small producers, consumed largely in areas where they are produced.
  • Threatened species. Since a lot of the vegetables and fruit occur under natural vegetation, they face over-exploitation. Edible seeds and fruits of these crops are gathered from the wild and with current growing human populations, and increased numbers of range animals (which eat the foliage as well as seed) populations of these plants are at risk of over-exploitation. This may result in elimination of the species from the areas and this is mostly aggravated by the fact that no or little effort is done to cultivate these species.
Source: Tim Hart (HSRC)

The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands study The Current State of Fruit & Vegetable Agro-Processing in South Africa (released February 2019) includes a look at indigenous and niche products.

Based on our experience, I firmly believe traditional African vegetables could be an important factor in strategies to alleviate food-shortages in rural and peri-urban settings and have useful applications following an ‘ecohealth’ approach (which takes into account human as well as ecosytem health).


According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), household food-security comprises not only food adequacy, but should also comply with nutrient and safety requirements as well as cultural preferences. In my view, reliable strategies to reduce food-insecurity in rural settings should acknowledge Africa’s indigenous food culture which is based on the utilisation of naturally-occurring food-plants and subsistence cropping of traditional vegetables.


Source: Dr Retha van der Walt, Morogo Research Programme at North West University. Write to her at Retha.VanDerWalt [at]

The brochure Most common indigenous food crops of South Africa gives notes for the following:


Grain crops

  • Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
  • Grain sorghum (Sorghum bicolour)
  • Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata)
  • Bambara groundnuts (Vigna subterranea)
  • Mungbean (Vigna radiata)

Vegetable crops

  • Cleome (Cleome gynandra)
  • Amaranth (Amaranthus)
  • Blackjack (Bidens pilosa L.)
  • Jews mallow (Corchorus olitorius L.)
  • Cassava (Manihot esculenta)
  • Amadumbe (Colocasia esculenta)

Fruit crops

  • Marula (Sclerocarya caffra)
  • Red milkwood (Mimusops zeyheri)
  • Mobola plum (Parinari curatellifolia)
  • Wild medlar (Vangueria infausta)
  • Num-num (Carissa macrocarpa)
  • Kei apple (Dovyalis caffra)
  • Monkey orange (Strychnos spinosa)

It was compiled by the Indigenous Food Crops division of the Directorate Plant Production, Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD). Find it at

Pigeon pea (cajanus cajan), a crop native to Africa and Asia, is a potential export crop to India. This is part of ongoing talks to increase intra-BRICS trade between India and South Africa.

International business environment

  • One of the suggested measures to combat world hunger is to renew efforts to enhance the production and use of culturally appropriate, traditional and underutilised food crops.
  • Modern agricultural research has concentrated on increasing the productivity of a few crops and breeds. As a result, a few crops have come to replace other, locally grown crops and there has been an enormous simplification of our agricultural systems. It has meant that our food security today depends on a very few species, which are traded globally and are available at very low prices.
  • For small-scale farmers in marginal areas this has not been a positive development. Traditionally dependent on many different plant species for exchange and subsistence, many farmers have been drawn into agricultural economies based on cash cropping commodity crops with little regard for the complexities and multifunctionalities of existing agricultural systems that have developed over time and in close contact with local ecosystems. In many cases, rural communities have abandoned the cultivation of food crops and are now dependent on cash for their everyday needs. The tendency of world commodity prices to fluctuate violently over time makes this a very risky strategy. Over the past few years, for example, the prices of many commodities have fallen so low that they do not even compensate production costs. Farmers are unable to fill this income gap from their present agricultural system, and there is a growing realization that diversification of production is an urgent necessity.
  • For other farmers, especially those living in areas unsuitable for the cultivation of improved varieties or commodity crops, agrobiodiversity is basic to survival. The more diversified their farming systems the greater the chance of self-sustainability and self-reliance. In such areas so-called underutilised species are particularly useful. They have been selected over time to withstand such stresses as drought and floods, and they can be produced in a sustainable way using available, low-cost, input practices. In many cases these species are also valuable sources of the micro-nutrients and vitamins needed to overcome the problem of “hidden hunger” – the lack of essential nutrients in diets consisting mainly of carbohydrate staples – which often affect the young and the elderly.
  • Although useful and often nutritious, very little is known about these underutilised crops. Cultivation requirements, yield improvement potential and other properties are seldom investigated and rarely documented. Usually these crops have not been commercialised and little has been done to develop markets for them. It is difficult to find information on them and the traditional knowledge that used to be integrated into rural culture and handed down from generation to generation within local communities is disappearing rapidly with the “modernisation” of agricultural practices and the outward migration of young people.
  • The displacement of local biodiversity is a major challenge not only for local food security but for the long-term sustainability of our global food system and the ecosystems that support it.
Source: Adapted from the editorial “Valuing crop diversity” on 

National strategy and government contact

  • Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) Directorate: Plant Production Find the many grower guides compiled by DALRRD under the “Websites & publications” heading. “Indigenous food crops” is included in the category “Key Areas of Technology Development” of DALRRD’s National Agricultural Research and Development Strategy.
  • Indigenous food crops features in the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)’s Bio-economy Strategy. Find the presentation at Take a look at

Role players


  • Abundance Wholesome Foods
  • African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI)
  • The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) is involved in research and training of indigenous vegetables and indigenous fruit (includes processing): (i) ARC-Vegetables and Ornamental Plants (VOP) – 012 841 9611 (ii) ARC-Tropical and Subtropical Crops – 013 753 7000 (iii) ARC-Infruitec/Nietvoorbij – 021 809 3100
  • Biowatch South Africa Training in the growing of indigenous food crops
  • Cedara College of Agriculture Relevant short courses like sweet potato processing are offered. See
  • The Centre for Co-ordination of Agricultural Research & Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA)
  • Crops For The Future, based in Malaysia,, works with local role players.
  • Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) Find the story “CSIR helps SMME develop food products” (2020, August).
  • Ecoproducts Baobab oil and baobab powder to the manufacturing and retail sectors
  • Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Economic Performance and Development (EPD) The EPD at the HSRC conducts social science research on the use of Indigenous Knowledge as a resource in agricultural development activities and food security.
  • KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Work done with indigenous vegetables.
  • Local Village “Delicious and nutritious eats” sourced from across the continent. Refer to the Sishuba article about this enterprise.
  • Mahlathini Development Foundation (MDF) Find the documentary “Promotion and production of traditional food” on the website, and other resources like the Diversification and food preparation manual.
  • Marula Natural Products This is an eco-friendly, low-tech enterprise designed to uplift women in rural communities and provide a sustainable income for families in the tribal lands of the Limpopo valley. Marula products are fairly traded and directly benefit rural villages while encouraging the protection of the Marula trees in their natural environment.
  • Medical Research Council Research includes looking into the use and nutritional value of African leafy vegetables among rural households: what nutritional deficiencies could be addressed through these plants?
  • Morogo Research Programme (MRP) – see North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus)
  • North-West University (Mahikeng Campus) Faculty of Human and Social Sciences The Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Indigenous Knowledge The NWU has an accredited IKS teaching programme at both under- and postgraduate level.
  • North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus) School of Biological Sciences Morogo Research Programme (MRP) Research is conducted on health and nutrition aspects of some African vegetables.
  • The PELUM Association is a regional network of over 200 civil society organisations in east, central and southern Africa, which is working towards sustainable agriculture, food security, and sustainable community development in the region. Its focus on food sovereignty includes traditional and indigenous crops and breeds. Visit (Kenya), (Uganda), (Zambia) for more.
  • Prolinnova c/o Institute of Natural Resources The PROLINNOVA programme (PROmoting Local INNOVAtion) has a focus on recognising the dynamics of indigenous knowledge (IK), and strengthening the capacities of farmers to adjust to changing conditions in order to gain food security, sustain their livelihoods and safeguard the environment.
  • SEED SEED’s Rocklands Urban Abundance Centre includes an indigenous food garden.
  • Setsong Indigenous Tea Crafters Tea products “crafted from wild harvested, indigenous African plants”
  • Siyazisiza Trust The Trust runs a programme looking to develop the value chain of drought-tolerant and indigenous crops.
  • South African Grains Farmer Association (SAGRA) Indigenous grains
  • Stellenbosch University (i) Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology (ii) Department of Agronomy
  • Sustainability Institute
  • Sweet Potatoes Vine Growers’ Association (SPVGA) – contact the ARC VOPI, Dr Sunette Laurie
  • Tshwane University of Technology Department of Crop Sciences
  • Ukuvuna Urban Farming
  • UMOYA Foods
  • Umthathi Training Project Vegetable and indigenous plant cultivation training at community, school and household level establishes productive gardens that supply food and healing plants.
  • University of the Free State (UFS) Department of Plant Sciences
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal (i) Department of Crop Science (ii) See references to African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) and Prolinnova.
  • University of Pretoria Department of Human Nutrition
  • University of Pretoria Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being
  • University of South Africa (UNISA) Unit for Indigenous Technological Knowledge Services
  • University of South Africa (UNISA) Department of Science & Technology Education
  • University of the Witwatersrand School of Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences Research conducted on the use of indigenous plants and animals by rural households in order to examine the impact of this on the environment.
  • Water Research Commission See reports on the website like Nutritional Value and Water Use of African Leafy Vegetables for Improved Livelihoods; Production Guidelines for African Leafy Vegetables; and Nutritional Status of South Africans: Links to Agriculture and Water.
  • Western Cape Department of Agriculture 
  • WWF SA

Websites and publications

A number of grower notes are available at, website of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. Under the “Resource centre” and “Brochures” options find the following:

The following Info Paks can be downloaded from the same website – take the “Resource centre” and “InfoPaks” menu option:

Indigenous vegetables by the Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture deals with growing Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), Spider Plant (Cleome gynandra L.), Jew’s Mallow (Corchorus spp.) , Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), Cucrbits and Yams (Dioscorea spp.) Find contact details on the “Agriculture in the Provinces” page. Download Indigenous vegetables here.

From the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture find the guidelines for growing cowpeas.

The National Agricultural Marketing Council‘s TradeProbe 86 (August 2021) includes the feature “The unharnessed opportunities for orphan crops: A case of Cowpeas”. Find the document at

Explore indigenous foods on Loubie Rusch’s blog:

Find the FAO‘s Traditional Crops page at

Find the Crops for the Future (CFF) page at, which encourages wider use of underutilised plant species globally.

Crop Trust ensuring “the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide”

Find Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge, joint publication of the Management of Social Transformation Programme (MOST) of UNESCO, and Centre for International Research and Advisory Networks (CIRAN) on

The Strategic Agriculture Network support indigenous foods as part of championing agroecology and food sovereignty. Visit

Join Facebook groups like “Ancient African Foods”.


Some articles

Our thanks to Tim Hart of the Human Science Research Council for material and feedback on the original draft. Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

Share this article


Start typing and press Enter to search